Commentary: A Vulgar Politician

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On March 8, 2018, writing for the Inquirer, Gideon Lasco wrote: “Someday, a generation more civilized than us will wonder why we elected — and tolerated — a President with such a foul mouth.” Perhaps he would benefit from some historical perspective. A foul mouth doesn’t negate nobility of one’s purpose and certainly not an impediment to being judged by the future generation as a leader who achieved greatness.

If there’s anything I would hope the future generation would become, it’s that they would have a more enlightened view of the world. “Enlightenment,” political realist philosopher Raymond Geuss once said, “is category that has a yes-or-no structure. It’s a question of degrees.” The enlightened future generation would judge Duterte not according to how clean his mouth but how he used power to shape events to prevent greater tragedies from happening to our country.

Lincoln is a clear example of the discrepancy between today’s headlines and history’s judgment.

“A vulgar politician” — that was how Abraham Lincoln was called by The New York Herald in one of their articles that lampooned him. They couldn’t believe the Republicans favoured Lincoln over candidates who looked and sounded more like a respectable statesman, such as Seward and Chase. On May 19, 1860, a writer called Lincoln a “third-rate Western lawyer..who cannot speak good grammar.” On May 20, another writer limned Lincoln as someone who represented “all that is brutal and bloody in Seward’s political programme.”

The Atlas and Argus was equally disgusted by Lincoln. On May 21, 1860, they described him as a “slang-whanging stump speaker, of a class with which every party teems, and of which all parties are ashamed.” On the same day, the Boston Post predicted that Lincoln would only serve as “the tool of the fanatical host he will lead on.”

On May 24, 1860 The Philadelphia Evening Journal asked why should Lincoln become President? His language was “coarse,” they said. His style, “illiterate.” And Lincoln’s “vulgar and vituperative” character couldn’t hold a candle to the refine and eminent personality of his opponent.

When Lincoln became president, a newspaper in Illinois said this about him:

His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world. The European powers will despise us because we have no better material out of which to make a President.

In Unpopular Mr Lincoln, Larry Tagg shared what a “Carolinian correspondent” told his friend about Lincoln:

Did you think the people of the South, the Lords Proprietors of the Land, would let this low fellow rule for them? No. His vulgar facetiousness may suit the race of clock makers and wooden nutmeg venders — even Wall Street brokers may accept him, since they do not protest — but never will he receive the homage of southern gentlemen..[because they would never submit to rule by a president who] exhibits himself at railway depots, bandies jokes with the populace, kisses bold women from promiscuous crowds.

In their 2012 Civil War issue, the Atlantic republished the 1904 article of Henry Villard, the journalist who covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Lincoln, Villard said, was fond of “low talk” and liked telling “coarse or even outright nasty” stories and dirty jokes. “The coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them,” Villard explained.

Villard found Lincoln revolting. “Again and again,” he said,

I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history… I could not have persuaded myself that the man might possibly possess true greatness of mind and nobility of heart..

As he got to know more the man, Villard saw something more in Lincoln:

…in spite of his frequent outbreaks of low humor, his was really a very sober and serious nature, and even inclined to gloominess to such an extent that all his biographers have attributed a strongly melancholic disposition to him.

And as the presidency of Lincoln unfolded, Villard witnessed how the vulgar village politician “proved [himself] to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities.”

In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan offered this reflection regarding Lincoln’s nasty and dirty jokes:

More genteel than Lincoln, [Henry Whitney, friend and colleague of Lincoln,] struggled to explain the president’s ‘filth,’ and to be sparing with his examples. ‘The great majority of [his] stories were very nasty indeed. I remember many of them but they do us no good.’ Apparently they did Lincoln good. They helped him politically and professionally. And rather than displacing his “ideality,” they expressed an element of his personality and experience inseparable from his moral idealism. Like Mark Twain, he had a genius for pithy narrative, and a sense that his stories and obscenities expressed something crucial about the underlying flaws in the universe and the inexplicable darkness of the human situation. And often the darkness found its best expression in humor.


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4 comments

  1. Nice one Sass. People are flawed. No one can have it all. What Duterte has is the one that mattered and that is the political will to do the right thing for the nation.

    Like

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